The black female voice has been revered, envied and commercialized for centuries; from Shirley Bassey’s iconic Obligation hauntingly vocal themes by Jorja Smith blue lights, these voices have always told the stories of their time in a way that no one else can. Neneh Cherry takes a Buffalo Stance in 1988 and Mrs. Dynamite taking things a little deeper with her debut in 2002, which won her a Mercury Prize, two BRIT Awards and three MOBOs, are just two earlier examples of successful black British women in the mainstream, proving that there is a varied and successful path for them in the UK.
Black female vocals are the Midas touch that can soar on a power ballad or glide on a house track. Aitch’s recent single Babe samples and showcases Ashanti’s hook from her classic hit Rock with you, propelling Aitch to No. 2 in the UK charts. Sampling Faith Evans by Headie One on House from his certified silver mixtape Music x Road in 2019 made it a fan favorite. Black female vocals have also been the driving force behind some of our most beloved dance hits. Kele Le Roc, Raye, Kelli-Leigh and Alika, to name a few, are key to the success of dance giants like Basement Jaxx, Duke Dumont, Jax Jones, Cliq and Regard As the cultural capital and economy of black British music is growing exponentially, black female artists have achieved and continue to achieve record premieres and against undeniable odds. Arlo Parks’ Mercury Award-winning debut album Collapsed in the rays of the sun reached number three in the UK charts and earned her multiple nominations for the 2021 BRIT Awards. The acclaimed Joan Armatrading was the first female artist to win a Grammy Award in the Blues category, having been nominated three more times. In 2007, she also became the first female artist to top the Billboard Blues chart.
“Appearances by black women are scrutinized, no matter how talented they are.”
The value that black female artists have brought to countless records cannot be ignored, no matter how hard they tried; there is a myth surrounding them, rooted in a racist ideology that ultimately seeks to hold them back. It hangs like a pall of smog over boardroom conversations on television, in magazines and on record labels. It slips into tabloid headlines and discourse on our Twitter timelines, perpetuating these negative messages about a black woman’s face and place in society.
The myth says they are hard to work with and hard to market, less ambitious and therefore less likely to succeed. These assumptions are rarely supported by solid reasoning and much of it is rooted in the politics of desirability; Appearances by black women are under scrutiny, however talented they are, the colorism means the barriers to entry for performers who look more like Mabel or Jorja Smith are significantly lower, but not without challenges. For women of a darker shade, the same old tropes are thrown at them: “difficult,” “aggressive,” or not “looking the right way.” This is reflected in the support they receive from brands, tastemakers and social media, and these attitudes corrode trust and can breed frustrations and doubts that can cripple an artist. Meanwhile, the already narrow crack in the door of opportunity is closing.
“The versatility of the black female artist – their sound, genders, complexion, hairstyles, style and energy have shaped pop culture since time immemorial.”
Paradoxically, the attitude that soul and blues embody through uniquely black female voices (think Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Etta James) has often been co-opted and masked under a guise of whiteness in the UK, giving rise to the “blue-eyed soul”. ‘ starlets like Joss Stone, Duffy, Amy Winehouse and Adele. The dizzying heights these women are able to reach are largely down to their race. In her 2010 autobiography, Dionne Warwick wrote about British Cilla Black covering Warwick’s hit Anyone with a heart just two months after his in 1964. Warwick wrote that Black’s version, ‘…just flat out copied. Note for note, word for word, and not very well, might I add’ – it became Black’s most successful release.
Black’s team undoubtedly understood the power of the copy-and-paste task, illustrating that the commerciality of black female vocals is understood, but swapping out black female vocalists for whiter or lighter versions is still a common occurrence in industry. Elisabeth Troy being omitted from the original credits of MJ Cole’s Crazy Love cements the misconception that black women can only sell records when their faces and names are erased from consumer view.
It was in the UK that Misteeq was told that “black girls don’t sell records”; they went on to achieve two top ten albums, seven consecutive top ten singles in the UK, Europe, Asia, Australasia and the US in eight years. There are many examples of black women in music achieving remarkable international and global success despite the odds. It fills me with optimism to see the surge of black female artists in the UK. I want them to know that they stand on the shoulders of the legends that came before them and that they must climb to the highest peak of the mountain without shame.
“Black male artists should also use their platforms, their voices and their opportunities to lift these women out loud.”
Regardless of naysayers, there are plenty of black female artists with an indomitable ability to embody the culture and garner critical and commercial acclaim. The versatility of the black artist – their sound, genres, skin tones, hairstyles, style and energy have shaped pop culture since time immemorial, capturing the zeitgeist and setting trends – these women are powerful and global artistic propositions. Yet whispers of the myth remain, with top decision-makers lazily returning to explain their lack of knowledge or care for the black female artists under their supervision.
Black male artists have been able to navigate more easily on their own terms since Grime’s resurgence into the mainstream since 2016; it is vital that black women artists too can exist and develop without compromise. Rather than being expected to fail, they deserve to be invested wholeheartedly. It cannot depend on their conformity to an aesthetic or a sound, because the very essence of the black female artist is that she is the model.
Seeing is certainly believing, the importance of having footprints to make in the quicksand of the music industry is more crucial than ever. Black female artists must continue to stand up for themselves and each other to cross the road less traveled and create a new normal. It’s not just up to them, black male artists should also use their platforms, voices and opportunities to lift these women out loud.
‘…it is vital that black women artists can also exist and develop without compromise.’
The rich lineage of legendary Black British female artists who have triumphed over the limitations imposed by the industry, is a promise that, as the tides continue to change, they will undoubtedly continue to dominate uncharted waters and silence the myth. once for all. everything.
In tribute to: Jamelia. Gabriella. Mica Paris. Tasmine Archer. Beverly Knight. Is she. Marsha Ambrosius. Shola Ama. Corinne Bailey Rae. Shaznay Lewis. Michael Gayle. Shirley Bassey. Alexandra Burke. Mrs. Dynamite. Cynthia Erivo. Kele le Roc. Nao. Terri Walker. Vula Mulinga. Shara Nelson. Skin. Sade Adou. Emeli Sande. Caron Wheeler. Neneh Cherry. No no. Laura Mvula. shingai. Lianne LaHavas. Leona Lewis. Ella May. Striped.